For the neutral fan, Sunday’s game between Chennai Super Kings and Kings XI Punjab ought to have stood out. A green-top wicket is a rarity in the Indian Premier League, and it is more rare even to see batsmen getting bowled whilst leaving balls on the off-stump.
Chennai fans would argue that the Pune pitch wasn’t really the best form of preparation for the playoffs at Wankhede and Eden Gardens, where pitches will be batsmen friendly and slower in nature. But this isn’t about them.
This is about Punjab instead, who were denied a shot at redemption by that Pune wicket. In a must-win game, wherein you need to beat the opposition by 53-plus runs or within a 38-ball margin, green tops aren’t really ideal. When Punjab set a 154-run target with only a leeway of 101 runs, the game was over as soon as the Powerplay finished.
Even so, Kings XI Punjab cannot really blame this Pune wicket for their misfortune. Their ship to the knockouts had sailed long ago.
What went wrong
‘Mindless experimentation’ is the phrase that comes to mind. When the season started, new skipper Ravichandran Ashwin promised some surprises. With mentor Virender Sehwag sitting on the bench, it was but a given. And in the first half of the tournament, Punjab did surprise indeed, winning five of their first six games.
The move to bench Chris Gayle worked, as did the call to bring him back after two games. Yuvraj Singh’s form was a question mark, and they backed/dropped him duly, never mind what the fan-base thought. Backing spinners – Ashwin and Mujeeb Ur Rehman – in the Powerplay as well as death overs gave a different twist to their game plan, something that opposition teams were unable to comprehend in the early half of the season.
It can be ascertained that the eight-day mid-season break didn’t work wonders for them, nor did the move to shift base to Indore. Sure, the team management would be happy with improved gate receipts, but Punjab simply failed to get going in the second half of the season. They lost seven out of their last eight games. That alone is justifiable reason enough to not make the playoffs.
Yet, it can also be said that Punjab didn’t really know their best eleven during this crucial phase when they needed to stem the rot and overturn this negative run. Apart from Gayle, KL Rahul, Andrew Tye, Ashwin and Mujeeb, they didn’t really have any fixtures in their playing eleven, often playing around with combinations and batting orders.
During the business end of a tournament like the IPL, champion teams look for consistency over suspense and surprises. In that light, promoting Ashwin to No 3 against Rajasthan Royals (in Jaipur) when everything was going just fine, and dropping Karun Nair for the must-win game against Mumbai Indians (on Wednesday) were suicidal moves.
Turning point of the season
Mathematically, Punjab were in the hunt until the last five overs had been bowled on Sunday evening. Yet, their massive loss to Royal Challenger Bangalore a week ago was the real death-knell to their season.
Quite simply, that loss came at the worst possible time and it impacted their run-rate to such an extent that it left Punjab with a lot to do. While keeping an eye on the results of Kolkata Knight Riders and Rajasthan Royals, they also needed to win both their last games when at the start of this past week, they only needed to win one out of three.
At that stage, getting bowled out for 88 and then losing with 11.5 overs to spare knocked the winds out of Punjab’s sails. There was no coming back from here.
KL Rahul – with 659 runs from 14 matches – and Andrew Tye – with 24 wickets from 14 games – are the obvious hits. As the season progressed, Tye grew in strength and confidence, ascertaining why he is so highly rated on the worldwide T20 circuit. At the other end of this spectrum, Rahul perfectly justified the moniker of ‘next big name in Indian cricket’ that has been bestowed on him by the legendary Sunil Gavaskar.
There is no doubt Rahul’s purple form will get tongues wagging. If he couldn’t be kept out of the limited-overs’ formats after his 2016 exploits, this season but confirms that he is now a started across all three formats for team Indian. How Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri figure out the remaining batting line-up, starting with the England tour, is their problem.
A word here is warranted for Afghanistan’s 17-year-old mystery spinner. As early as the first game of the season against Delhi Daredevils, it was obvious that Punjab had unearthed humongous talent, even if raw. His standout moment came when he bowled Kohli through the gate with a googly at Mohali, whilst also spearheading Punjab during the death overs in those early games. On Indore’s flat wicket, he couldn’t really get going and a freakish injury in the last week sidelined him completely in what was another blow to Punjab’s hopes.
A crucial problem was the lack of runs from the likes of Mayank Agarwal (120 runs in 11 matches, highest 30) and Yuvraj Singh (65 runs in 8 matches). It meant that they were heavily dependent on Gayle and Rahul at the top, while Karun Nair (301 runs in 13 matches, strike-rate 136.19) and Aaron Finch (134 runs in 10 matches) dealt with their own inconsistencies. Manoj Tiwary (47 runs in 5 matches) too was guilty in this regard as a backup experienced batting option that failed to get going.
Such a problematic middle order, with no solution in sight till the very end, once again highlighted the selection muddle for Punjab. Even so, spotlight shines here primarily on two batsmen.
First, on Agarwal, for he was coming off a great Ranji season and many expected him to take that form forward to make an impression for the national team. He didn’t make the necessary step-up. While given a free license to go for his shots, Agarwal could never convert his starts at any stage in the tournament and this hampered momentum in Punjab’s batting line-up, forcing them to look at other options during the business end.
And second, on Yuvraj, whose career nosedived to another low during this IPL season. This was considered his last-gasp attempt at an international comeback. With every passing series, the Men in Blue are getting more and more set in their plans, and this isn’t just about fitness alone anymore.
Yuvraj simply has no runs to show at this moment, and during this entire season, it was so obvious to see that this was a batsman completely past his best years. Repeatedly, he failed to connect bat and ball with apt timing, a shadow of his glorious past.
At the end of this 2018 IPL season, Yuvraj looks more like a batsman on the cusp of retirement than an international return. When, however, is a call only he can make even as die hard fans are in anguish at his current state.
What next for them
Punjab were unable to utilise their two key overseas players – Finch and David Miller. Thanks to Gayle’s success, Finch was never in contention for the opener’s role and had to be shifted down the order further as Agarwal was given enough opportunities in the first half.
Playing Marcus Stoinis and Finch together also meant that a hard-hitter like Miller (74 runs in 3 matches) only played a handful games the whole season and never really had the opportunity to get going.
When Punjab sit down to review their season, this imbalance in their middle order will pose some questions, and the challenge will be to re-address it in the next year’s IPL auction. The emotional purchase of Yuvraj didn’t work out either, and even if he doesn’t retire immediately, the left-hander isn’t a reliable option for the next season.
While there was reported discord between the owners and the team management over some selection issues, they have to move past it now with the understanding that the management has every right to experiment. The captain and mentor/coach, meanwhile, have to accept that there is a time and place for it. They will have learnt about consistency being the key to success the hard way.
Overall, this was a season of great promise for Punjab and they delivered until the halfway point. The IPL, or any sport for that matter, doesn’t hand out any trophies at mid-season though.